Keeping 192 United Nations Member Countries Happy

The U.N. General Assembly convenes 192 member countries in New York annually. Desmond Parker, chief of protocol for the UN, is tasked with keeping the 8,500 delegates happy. His team is behind every handshake, photo-op, and meeting and seating chart. Parker explains his unique position, and how he keeps a potential logistical nightmare running smoothly.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

We're in New York City this week for the United Nations General Assembly. Traffic in New York, even crazier than usual as motorcade becomes a form of mass transit. Leaders from 192 countries are here, thousands of people with unique customs, traditions and often, their own languages. What you don't see behind the ceremony are the 13 members of the U.N. protocol office. It's their job to figure out who sits where, whether a leader shakes hands or bows, whose flag goes where and when, and who stands in front during the big photo-op. Basically, they try to keep everybody happy.

Desmond Parker is the chief of protocol at the United Nations. If you'd like to ask him a question about what he does and how he does it, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Or you can drop us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. Desmond Parker joins us from the studios at the U.N. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DESMOND PARKER (Chief of Protocol, United Nations): Thank you.

CONAN: And you've got all those people in town. What are you doing in a radio studio?

Mr. PARKER: I was asking myself that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: I was asked to come and talk to you, so here I am.

CONAN: And this is a huge event. It must be a logistical nightmare. It's got to be the most difficult time of the year for you.

Mr. PARKER: It really is. It really is. Inviting and hosting 8,500 guests to the United Nations is no easy task.

CONAN: And security has gotten nothing but more and more complicated over the years.

Mr. PARKER: Exactly. Exactly Given also the fact that we - the United Nations headquarters is undergoing a major construction overhaul at this time. You can really imagine how difficult it is for us to accommodate people and move around and get things flowing the way they should flow. It's a nightmare, as you say.

CONAN: It's a nightmare.

Mr. PARKER: It's a logistical nightmare.

CONAN: What is your biggest challenge?

Mr. PARKER: My biggest challenge is meeting the demands of all of the member states, the various demands of member states and the observers who come here to do business on a daily basis. During the General Assembly, it's particularly difficult because, of course, you have so many heads of state and government. We have, this year, close to 120 heads of state and government visiting and trying to deal all of the demands and the requirements of those who handle the heads of state and government. It's challenging.

CONAN: But when you say demands, what kinds of things do they demand?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: What sort of things they demand? Everyone wants more access to the General Assembly hall. Everyone wants to be closer to the action. And so, you know, we have rules of procedure. We have a certain number of seats that are available, let's say, to delegates in the General Assembly hall. But basically, people wanted to have more seats. People want to have much more access to the center of the activity.

CONAN: I know, for example, that the seating arrangements in the General Assembly itself, it's all alphabetical. And it - you move one seat every year, is that right?

Mr. PARKER: Well, what happens is that the secretary general sort of randomly selects the name of a member state out of a hat containing all the names of member states. And the name that is pulled is the member state that sits in the first seat to the right, and then everything follows in alphabetical order.

CONAN: So you can end up one year in the back row and then next year in the front row.

Mr. PARKER: That is what the intent is, to ensure that no one sits in the same place every year, to ensure that there's, you know, parity or equal distribution, equal opportunity to sit in the front, as in the back.

CONAN: You cannot always make everybody happy. I know that's a revelation to you, but some people are going to be upset some of the time.

Mr. PARKER: Yes. Yes. That is - you cannot please everyone. Basically, that's what's we are called upon to do in my line of work, meeting the expectations of member states, observers and their clients and, well, the whole United Nations family. It's an unending task, let me tell you. And it's sometimes a thankless one. Yeah, you cannot please everyone.

CONAN: Now...

Mr. PARKER: You cannot please everyone.

CONAN: ...when a head of state or a head government arrives, is there a certain ceremony that's dictated by protocol?

Mr. PARKER: There is not a ceremony that is dictated by protocol precisely because of the fact that there are so many heads of states and government arriving. I mean, everyone wants to arrive in time for a meeting at a particular time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PARKER: The General Assembly starts at 9:00 in the morning, and as of 8:00, the Secret Service and security elements sort of work to schedule the arrival of heads of states and government. Once these heads of states and government arrive, what happens is that the Protocol and Liaison Service will have an officer or two out front, greeting heads of states and government, simply welcoming them and ushering them into the General Assembly hall or into what we call the Indonesian lounge, which is where they can relax before the meeting actually starts. But there is not a ceremony. We do not have a ceremony. It's difficult to have a ceremony for each and every head of state because they arrive so - the flow is so continuous. You see what I'm saying?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PARKER: If you have 50 heads of states and government who are scheduled to arrive in half an hour, it's very - it's not possible to have a ceremony for each one.

CONAN: Let's see if we get a caller in on the conversation. We'll go to Maria(ph), Maria with us from Orlando.

MARIA (Caller): Hi. I'd like to thank you for a great hospitality, because I've been part of two different U.N. delegations to the General Assembly. And I'd like to ask, for the benefit of my current students, how can someone aspire and prepare to work in the capacity that you're working for at the U.N., sir?

Mr. PARKER: I'll tell you what I did. What I did was to study languages. I studied language at the University of Toronto and in France, at the university at Dijon. Later, I studied international relations. One can follow a similar pattern, but there are other paths that one can take. One can study international relations, one can study political science. Protocol is not in itself a discipline that is taught anywhere really.

MARIA: Right.

Mr. PARKER: It has to do more with understanding the manner in which governments and international organizations function. And it - a lot of this comes from, basically, from experience. Once you have an understanding of the environment in which things function, then it's easier for you to become part of the organization and pick up as you go along.

CONAN: You mentioned languages. I think there are six official languages at the United Nations. There are many more languages than that spoken at the United Nations.

Mr. PARKER: Correct, there are six official languages.

CONAN: And will people say, why isn't Hausa or Korean an official language?

Mr. PARKER: Yes, I imagine that people will say so. But the six official languages are the six official languages, and the majority of member states have learned to live with that fact.

CONAN: Okay. Maria, thanks very much and are your students interested in becoming experts in protocol?

MARIA: They certainly are. I teach - I taught a developing nation's politics class at the University of Florida. And now I'm tutoring privately. I was with the Georgian delegation two years when I worked for President Shevardnadze.

CONAN: And I think the only example I could think of from popular culture of a protocol expert is C-3PO from "Star Wars."

MARIA: C-3PO, there you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARIA: I'm going to go take them to see "Star Wars" right now. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much. Here's an email we have from Brianna(ph) in Salt Lake City. What special challenges confront female representatives in an environment in which many world leaders represent societies in which women are still marginalized socially and politically?

Mr. PARKER: That's a good question. At the United Nations, there are quite a few female ambassadors, female prominent representatives. I know that they, well, certainly do not make up the majority, but that those who are here work extremely hard to, you know, carry out the mandates that are given to them.

As for the challenges, it would be difficult for me to say what the challenges they face are. I am not necessarily exposed to the challenges faced by female ambassadors. They seem to get on very well doing their jobs here, and they function just as well as their male counterparts. But the fact is that there are not as many as one would hope that there could be.

CONAN: Let's go next to Patrick(ph), Patrick with us from Philadelphia.

PATRICK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PATRICK: I was just wondering, in say a parliamentary model where there's a prime minister who has the power and a president who is more of a figurehead but is officially the head of state, who is chosen to represent a particular country at this kind of event?

Mr. PARKER: Usually, when you have a president who is, as you say, a sort of a figurehead, it is the, well, the executive head that comes, meaning the - you would find that the prime minister would represent.

CONAN: So the prime minister of Britain, who is in fact the head of government, as opposed to Queen Elizabeth, who is the head of state.

Mr. PARKER: That's correct. That's correct.

CONAN: It's an oddity. In fact, in the United States, you have someone who is the president of the United States who's the head of state who comes here.

Mr. PARKER: Executive, isn't he.

CONAN: Yes. We're talking - thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

PATRICK: Thank you.

CONAN: And it's not your job to decide when there are disputes between who is the representative. I mean, there's some credentials committee who decides who is the actual government of a - if that's in dispute. That's not your job, is it?

Mr. PARKER: It's not my job, but the credentials committee works along with the office of legal affairs at the secretariat. And, yes, it's their decision, it's their job to mediate or to work on disputes regarding credentials, regarding those who come and who speak and who are allowed to take part in the deliberation.

CONAN: Desmond Parker is chief of protocol for the United Nations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And there - along with different languages and many different traditions - different food, how do you deal with that?

Mr. PARKER: How do we deal with different food? The only time that I have to deal personally with different food is when the secretary-general is hosting, for example. And so the secretary-general has, let's say, an annual heads of state luncheon that he hosts. And what we try to do is to find out from heads of state and government who are attending what their dietary preferences are. We work with a contractor to set up a menu. And it's based on the responses that we get from heads of state and government, or from their various ministries of foreign affairs, that we provide or we present to our contractors what the requirements are, and they come up with a meal for us. We go, we taste and we, you know, taste and try to see what is palatable and what is not palatable, so to speak. And we end up, sort of, trying to eventually pleasing most people. We have not had complaints, for example, from heads of state and government regarding...

CONAN: The food.

Mr. PARKER: ...the quality of the food. We've never had a complaint.

CONAN: Here's an email from Marlon(ph) in Michigan. I'd like to know how the speeches by international leaders are coordinated. The convention of the General Assembly, how is the order of the speeches determined? Moreover, how do you deal with everyone who might want to attend a speech by President Obama in contrast to an empty auditorium for other world leaders?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Speeches are delivered according to - the speaking slots are determined by the time that you, as a member state, request to speak -meaning, we open a list of speakers at a particular date, and first come, first served.

The opening, as this morning, we had - usually have Brazil speaking first or you have the president of the General Assembly speaking first...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PARKER: ...and then the secretary-general, followed by Brazil. Brazil, traditionally, has held the first slot because in very early times, when no one wanted to speak first, Brazil always...

CONAN: Always willing to speak first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: ...offered - yes, always offered to speak first. And so they have earned the right to speak first at the General Assembly. But everyone else follows in the order of the date at which the request was made. So - meaning, if we opened the speaker's list as of the 10th of May, everyone who has applied to speak on the 11th of May will earn an early slot, so to speak.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PARKER: And that is how it goes. The actual order is determined in precedence, meaning that heads of state speak first, followed by heads of government, followed by vice presidents, crown princes, ministers of foreign affairs, and then other deputy ministers.

CONAN: Got to keep track in case anybody gets promoted or demoted. In any case, there are occasional leaders from countries that have, let's say, difficult relations with the host country, the United States. And does it make your life easier that Kim Jong Il does not like to travel from North Korea very much?

Mr. PARKER: It's a loaded question you're asking me. If it makes my life more difficult or less difficult, no it doesn't, in the sense that we do have people coming to the General Assembly or coming to the United Nations who really do not have an easy relationship with the host country. But it's not part of my business, so to speak, to get involved there. They come to the United Nations, and we welcome them and treat with them like any other member state.

The difficulties with the host country are worked out between the host country and themselves bilaterally. But at the United Nations, everyone, as a member state, is treated with the respect that he deserves.

CONAN: Desmond Parker, we wish you the best of luck in what will be a difficult week.

Mr. PARKER: I thank you very much.

CONAN: Desmond Parker, United Nations chief of protocol, joined us from a studio inside the U.N. Tomorrow, what's the point of the United Nations General Assembly? We'll talk about what they hope to accomplish this week, plus the U.N. head of disaster relief who oversaw the response in Haiti and in Pakistan. Join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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